To Helmet or not to helmet: A genial debate amongst gentlemen

Greetings, oh faithful reader.

Welcome to a new, possibly interesting and probably volatile format for our continuing blog entries. For your consideration, we submit a debate in printed form. Our subject today will be on the contentious issue of helmet use, especially in its application in rock climbing. Our two correspondents will have the chance to elucidate on the finer points of their argument and to engage in rebuttal against the other’s.

Without further ado, I present the contenders…

In the right corner, a member of the welterweight class, the nomad of the antipodes… the one, the only, Ryan “Shabbi” Siacci, Esquire. Part-time writer, part-time film maker, full-time awesome.

In the left corner, we have Chris “Wardy” Ward. He’s a defunct Mountain Guy, an avid cragger of the south-eastern US of A, and a petroleum accountant extraordinaire. As a matter of general trivia, he reports that he was once cited by Human Resources for standing on a chair to hang holiday decorations in the office.

Shabbi:

Wardy’s introduction, entirely of his own volition, serves as a damning character reference. He is a reckless youth with a tendency toward dangerous practices and anarchistic ideology who makes Human Resources and Occupational Safety employees gnash their teeth and weep upon their clipboards. Ok, that was needless libel. Truth be told, I like and respect the esteemed Chris Ward more than a great portion of outdoor folk I’ve met in my travels.

All levity aside, however, let’s address the issue at hand.

The right corner/left corner designation was not an arbitrary throw-away, but an indication of our political leanings (though definitely not in the broader sense) towards the issue of helmet use in rock climbing. I represent the conservative element who believe in the thorough application of safe practices. Those who forego helmet use are not a minority group by any means. At any given sport crag, it’s a pure metaphysical certainty that you’ll encounter climbers bereft of cranial protection. I’ve never fully understood why this should be so. To me, it seems akin to cruising the neighbourhood on your bicycle as a youngster, when wearing a helmet was decidedly unfashionable and uncool. Call me old fashioned, but I feel like traumatic brain injuries are unfashionable.

As any climbing equipment disclaimer will make you aware, climbing is a sport with inherent risks. Modern helmets are light, breathable and, if fitted correctly, comfortable. Wearing one is a simple measure that greatly decreases the odds of catastrophic injury, whether by the cruel hands of gravity or by the ubiquitous menace of rockfall. As humans, our brain is our biggest asset. Without it, I’d not be writing these words right now.

Wardy:

Shabbi, your endorsement means a lot to me. You are a stout player- both a gentleman and a scholar, as it were. Ladies take note, this is a man who can bang in a snow picket (phrasing!).

Right then, my droogs. Are helmets effective tools for mitigating climbing risks? Yes. Should all climbers wear helmets all the time while climbing, or suffer the castigation of their compatriots? No. Wait, what? Let’s back up.

I want to start this off with a quote by John Long, one of the original Stonemasters and a prolific technical writer amongst climbers: “Climbing was never a game where people were told to play it safe – or else were judged as liabilities. This kind of thinking is better suited for the golf course or the opera, not the wilds.” Climbing is not just a simple method of traveling up and down vertical surfaces by means of physical ability and a rack of safety equipment. Climbing is a deeply personal spiritual practice, which involves making complex judgement calls and pushing your own limits of what you perceive to be possible. You could say that it’s a nebulous mindset that coalesces into and develops during the course of physically touching some rocks, but I digress. Anyhow, pushing the limits of the possible is rewarding, but can also be very dangerous. Yes, you read it right on the tags that came with your equipment- Climbing Is Dangerous! 

The risks of climbing should be obvious. While employing traditional methods of climbing, the integrity of the safety system can sometimes be questionable. When soloing unroped, a fall always has catastrophic consequences. Climbing in remote and exposed locations places practitioners far from emergency services. In other words, Humpty Dumpty can take the Big Ride all the way down, and nobody will be able to find his bones ‘til the springtime. However, these practices have been around since the first human scaled the first stone- from the roots of climbing though John Long’s heyday, being confronted by dire consequences was the norm. Consequently, most old school climbers were admittedly kind of crazy.

Can climbing be made safe? Absolutely. Climbing can be statistically safer than driving to work or crossing the street. By properly employing modern equipment and restricting your activities to well-maintained sport climbing parks, where all protection is pre-placed and bomber, you can remove every ounce of risk and uncertainty from climbing. This probably accounts for the mass appeal of rock climbing over the last few decades- technology finally made the activity safe enough for your neighbour Burt and Uncle Ronny and everyone else with a free Saturday afternoon. There are certainly also incredible athletes who accomplish insanely physically demanding climbs in this environment of safety, and that is some rad sickness. However, the safety of sport climbing is no longer just an opportunity to explore your physical limits without consequence- absolute safety is becoming the expected norm at all times. 

If climbing started as a bunch of crazy daredevils taking big risks in a calculated way, why are we now so focused on removing every ounce of risk? This is just a theory (like general relativity or pickup artistry), but it seems that extreme sports that become safe enough to go mainstream turn into mainstream sports that are expected to be safe.  For example, skydiving started as a bunch of daredevils jumping from perfectly good airplanes with experimental gear. Now it’s subject to two regulatory bodies and a billion rules. More people get killed by lightning strikes than skydiving accidents. Risk and uncertainty have been eliminated, and many judgement calls are made by the USPA and FAA, not by individuals. The idea that rock climbing could be subject to a similar Orwellian future keeps me up at night.

An absolute focus on safety, implemented by hard and fast rules, is contrary to the very nature of climbing. Each climber, whether on bolts or gear or just their appendages, should push their own boundaries and make their own judgements. We arm ourselves not with rules, but with knowledge. The best way to protect our brains is by using them effectively in the first place.

So helmets, eh? Is it important that climbers understand the risks inherent in climbing? Yes. Is it important that climbers understand how a helmet could mitigate those risks? Yes. Should all climbers wear a helmet all the time? Hell no. Everyone’s perception of and tolerance for risk differs. I wear a helmet when I believe conditions require it- when belaying under choss, or when the climbing party above me decides that I look an awful lot like the city of Dresden, Germany. In those cases, the risks outweigh the benefits of going bare-headed.  However, generally I enjoy feeling alone, naked and exposed on a sheer face, and wearing a helmet significantly reduces that sensation for me. Personally, I find that going without is often worth some additional risk. Your mileage may vary.

Shabbi:

Good golly, what have I gotten myself into here? In my naivety, I’ve carelessly engaged in a battle of wits with an intellectual juggernaut and a fine craftsman of prose. I fear that any victory I might wrest from this episode may be pyrrhic in nature, though, for what it’s worth, I’ll give it a red hot go. Wardy raised some extremely valid points in your argument, so my response will be less of a rebuke than an elucidation on alternate viewpoints and factors.

So let’s take a brief wander through the magical world of statistical analysis. From 1952 to 2012, Accidents in North American Mountaineering reported some 5400 falls. However, the incidents of rock, snow or ice fall exceeded that number by nearly 7 times, of which “No Hard Hat” was listed as a contributing factor in 434 (easily preventable) cases. It’s true that in some cases, choss and loose rock are blatantly obvious upon even the most cursory of inspections, though it’s not always so cut and dry. If engaged in an adventurous climb where the character of the rock varies wildly from one pitch to the next or during an instance much like the eloquent Dresden metaphor, it may be a case of too little, too late. Statistically, the disuse of basic safety equipment (to wit; ropes and helmets) contributes disproportionately toward accidents, with the remaining share mostly attributed to inexperience in one form or another… which brings me to my next point.

I sincerely hope that Mr Long’s assertion that safety is a point of concern that should rest in the domain of the Opera is an attempt at humour and non-chalance, though I find the idea to be a little asinine nonetheless. That said, his eminence as a high-profile climber speaks of the upper echelons of experience within the sport. Sadly, not everyone is as beneficially endowed with the same reserves of skill and knowledge. If I may be allowed a quote of my own, I believe it was Mahatma Ghandi that said “people are idiots” (source needed). As the cultivation of climbing as a sport and a community continues, we’re essentially introducing newcomers to a culture in which the disuse of helmets is seen as a norm, rather than an exercise in risk assessment and acceptance. As guides, Wardy and myself have undergone countless hours of formal and incidental training in risk management. This does not hold for the majority of climbers however, given that I’ve met people who learned the basics of climbing through YouTube videos. These are people who don’t have the tools to make informed decisions and would often be hard pressed crossing a busy street without the benefit of a little green man. Helmet use as a personal choice, one that comes from a calculated assessment of risk, worries me much less than the establishment of a social norm in which helmets are an afterthought, if a thought at all.

If you’re well informed and you’ve made judgment call based on logic rather than assumptions (which in all cases, Wardy, I believe you have), then it indeed becomes a personal choice of which risks you’re willing to accept. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence which provides justification for helmets, even amongst the experienced and in seemingly benign vertical terrain. There’s a well-balanced article titled “Third death at Arapiles fuels helmet debate” which appeared in The Age in 2003. It objectively reports both sides of the argument in an incident where an experienced climber fell 20 meters onto his head and died. Whilst the prognosis is not particularly friendly either way, climbers regularly survive potentially deadly falls, such as Alex Ling’s 28m fall in the Blue Mountains earlier this year (he got lucky with friction and, you guessed it, had a helmet on). People rarely survive collisions involving hard objects (including but not limited to rocks, the ground, trains and Chris Ward) and their unprotected noggin. And whilst death is certainly an unfavourable outcome for any climb, what really gives me the heeby-jeebies is the thought of surviving the accident only to be reduced to a vegetative existence or a state of temporary or permanent cognitive impairment. Is any climb worth increasing that risk? Again, that choice is a personal one, but for me the answer is no.

To a certain extent, Wardy’s apocalyptic vision of climbing in 1984 is indeed a concern. That the climbing community has avoided the strict regulation we see in other sports owes largely to two main factors. One is that sports such as the archetypal sky diving example are now commercial ventures. The regulation of climbing as a commercial enterprise is no different and is subject to similar rules and guidelines. However, as a personal pursuit we enjoy a lot more freedom of choice, mainly because we have a duty of care only to ourselves and our partners. This remains so because of the second reason, which is that the climbing community is incredibly good at self-regulation, being that it is in our best interests to engage in self-preservation. A good example is that of re-bolting initiatives that continue take place here in South East Queensland in order to replace older styles of bolts that were questionable in their integrity. I believe that it behoves us as climbers to continue this self-regulation with an emphasis on safety, lest the control of the sport becomes the oligarchical dystopia you rightly fear.

Wardy:

Shabbi, your silver-tongued (ladies!) eloquence nearly had me doubting myself. Helmets offer some level of protection, after all, so why not normalize their wear at all times at the crag? It’s simple and easy, and we can all sleep better at night, right? But ho, my friend, with no disrespect to you- only for the love of the sport- I offer up the following views:

Keeping the pristine hands of the dayhikers (and the public servants among them) off of our sport is indeed a sticky wicket. This is especially true in a social climate in which every death is apparently preventable, and our institutions are responsible for keeping us safe from ourselves upon pain of legal liability. I was recently turned away from climbing by Tallulah Gorge State Park because there were some patches of ice in the gorge bottom. That really wired my nuts, to be honest, but I recognize that there is a person somewhere out there who, armed with a grappling hook, a hank of hardware-store cord and a Rambo survival knife, is fully capable of wandering into the inaccessible depths of the canyon and breaking both their femurs while rock hopping. Dude, Ghandi was right. What do we do about this fine specimen of humanity? How do we keep them from prejudicing the public against climbing? There’s always an element that’s content to sit back on the couch and naysay, hoping that the rest of us will join them in their spite. More stringent self-regulation and the talismanic use of helmets may seem like tempting defences against this lot, but I don’t buy it. Whether I’m getting yelled at officially by a park ranger or yelled at unofficially by a BSA jamboree master (who probably wears his nut tool duct-taped intractably to his harness), it’s still likely to cause me to blow the crux sequence. Lame. Let not the threat of the dayhikers ruin our peaceful days of cragging.

If slapping a helmet on the aforementioned Batman-Rambo kept them safe and out of the newspapers, this debate would be over and I’d be out raising money to distribute helmets to the masses. Helmets, however, are just a tool, not a panacea. My friends in research science tell me that you can’t prove anything with anecdotal evidence, but I tried one time and it, like, totally worked, so I offer up the following examples: The late Pete Absolon was tragically destroyed by a stone in 2007, helmet notwithstanding. A Spanish mountain goat once bombed me with a stone that must have been larger than a basketball, and it exploded twenty feet from me, leaving behind an acrid stench of dissipated energy and personal near-annihilation. Had it hit me, my helmet would not have saved me. Helmets are effective at protecting a small but crucial portion of your body from stones large enough to do more than annoy you but smaller than those that will smash your helmet and break your neck. Likewise, helmets can protect your noggin from short deck falls and swings into corners (mine has and I was glad for it), but I would not rely on one to protect me from the Big Ride. If I took a 28 meter fall, I’d prefer to be wearing a helmet, but that’s like shutting the barn door after the donkey has already gone and walked to Tijuana.  I’m all for appropriate helmet use, but be real- not every bareheaded casualty would have survived their ultimate whipper if they’d made use of a brain bucket. I’m willing to bet that those people made some Batman-Rambo decisions prior to their untimely demises, and that’s the real culprit.

Let’s not require gumbos to wear helmets, let’s get the gumbos to recognize risk and manage it, while giving them the freedom to do so on a personal level. Yes, this is more difficult, but it might actually create a better climbing culture. If our communal knowledge base is gleaned from Youtube and that wild-eyed guy at the gym who claims to have dirtbagged in the Front Range, I agree that we do indeed have a problem. Really, who hasn’t seen something egregious at the crag? Just unbelayvable. Making the use of helmets a requirement in order to compensate for poor technical knowledge is a cheap cop-out though. I maintain that the best solution to a lack of communal knowledge is education, especially because that gives me carte blanche to go ‘round the crag yelling at people about anchor equalization and knot dressing. Ugh, suddenly fogey old sergeants proliferate and co-opt our sends with guff and rigmarole. Maintaining the freedom of the hills while keeping an influx of gumbos safe is a somewhat intractable problem. Maybe, if we all took a couple courses or picked up a good technical manual, it would just fade away. At the very least, it would put an end to the bad game of telephone by which we climbers usually pass information.

Some practice in risk assessment is also crucial if you subscribe to the theory of risk compensation. It essentially states that, for every physical safeguard we employ, we cut our margin of error to keep overall risk constant. In other words, when we hear that helmet buckle pop shut, we subconsciously think “Wow, now I’m ready to do some dumb shit.” I can think back on a few anecdotes that make it seem like my BD Half Dome came with a couple of “Good Luck” ping-pong balls, perfect for storing in my drawers for the sake of convenience. If you’re not savvy enough to reject this effect, you might find yourself pumping out in the runout crux of Fear of Flying, once buoyed by plastic confidence but now whimpering and farting.

I’m not trying to make a case against helmets. I wear one where appropriate, and I recognize that I’m accepting some risk when I don’t. Truth be told, my dog in the fight is really that I don’t like rules about rock climbing. It’s hard to cast off into the void when someone is breathing down your neck- to find that perfect blend of ultimate insight and escapism when some weekend warrior wants to come over to tell me about my life. The only rule that matters is to do what excites you and learn all that you can about it. We should all endeavour to be crafty in the way that the pioneers of climbing had to be. I certainly feel like there’s a universe of the unknown out there for me to learn and explore, and that’s exciting. Climbers should progress responsibly, develop an accurate picture of the risks they face, and make sure that their tolerance matches. I believe in making some safety concessions in the interest of getting stoked until my life catches fire, but I want to keep rockin’ until a ripe old age if possible. And yeah, we should all probably wear helmets sometimes, though I’m not going to demand it of any of you. Please extend the same courtesy to me. This is Wardy, defunct Mountain Guy, Dixie cragger, and p.a. extraordinaire, signing off.

Well, there you have it folks. This concludes our genial debate on the subject of helmets in rock climbing. It has been presented exactly as it was received by the opposing party, without editing or abridgment. In summary, acceptance of risk is a very personal decision, one that sometimes borders on a spiritual one. Regardless of your choice, it should come from a deliberate assessment of the given variables and hazards, both objective and subjective. As climbers, we should be striving for continual improvement, not just in strength and technique but in the elusive beast we sometimes call “mountain sense”. Developing this will help us to analyse risk and apply sound decision making.

Stay safe and happy cragging. Signing off….

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in March 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?